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Snipers Shoot Real People

April 8, 2013

In these days of photographers using everything from smart phones to tablets, added to the diverse variety of actual cameras, most people are now very aware when you point a camera at them – and they react accordingly.

One friend of mine always puts her hand in front of her face, or turns away whenever I try to include her in a photograph. Children are now so aware of cameras that it is rare to get a natural, unposed candid photo. A photographer friend of mine has conditioned her grandchildren to grudgingly accept being photographed on most family occasions. They pose in order to get back to Facebook, or whatever activity has been interrupted by her desire to immortalise them.

Depending on the country, travel photographers can still get natural candid portraits in the less travelled destinations, well off the tourist track, but these opportunities for candids are becoming rarer. The golden days of camera safaris to capture natural photos of unaware subjects going about daily life have long gone. More than once, I have been presented with aggression, stupid expressions, elevated middle fingers or have been hassled for money after raising my camera to take a snapshot in public places like local markets.

What do you do if you want unposed quality portraits that show people as they are, rather than interacting with you? I call this Sniping.

To me, Sniping is the art of candid portraiture where the subject is totally unaware of the photographer, has no interaction, and so behaves completely naturally. To do this effectively, you need need a camera with a long telephoto lens. There are a number of Super Zooms such as the Panasonic Lumix FZ200 which features a 24 – 610mm ƒ2.8 lens. There are other equally capable offerings from Canon, Sony, Nikon and Fuji. They all feature image stabilised, super tele-lenses, but are limited in how far you can increase ISO to get sufficient shutter speed for hand holding. They are reasonably priced and extremely capable, however, for the best results you need one of the compact, lightweight telephoto lenses I mentioned in my previous blog ‘Bring them Closer’ with an image stabilised 70-300 mm telephoto zoom lens on a DSLR. One that is capable of high quality images at high ISO is perfect.

The reason you need good high ISO performance lies in the fact that even in bright sunlight you are shooting moving subjects with a long lens that has a small minimum aperture. You need high shutter speeds and to achieve them, high ISO. With high ISO comes the penalty of increased noise.

The old rule of thumb that your minimum shutter speed needs to be the reciprocal of the focal length is never more applicable than in this pursuit. To clarify, to hold a 300mm lens steady, it needs a minimum shutter speed of 1/300th of a second or better. Add to this the fact that you are mostly dealing with randomly moving subjects, a bit of anxiety and variable lighting and you will soon see that 1/500th of a second, or more, is desirable. The image stabilisation helps a bit, but if you want really sharp results, handheld on moving subjects, I wouldn’t rely on it too much below 1/160th of a second.

High ISO, coupled with low noise, narrows the choice of camera somewhat. DX format cameras are compact, perform better than very small sensor point and shoot cameras, but generally get noisy at ISO 800 and above. On these affordable cameras, you can get reasonable shots at ISO 1250 and sometimes up to 2000. These speeds are workable if you choose situations that keep them within their more restricted parameters. Photographing slower moving subjects in better lighting will give you satisfactory results.

The high ISO low noise champions are the NIkon D4 and Nikon D3S, the Canon 5DMk3 and 7D as well some offerings from Sony. With these cameras, 10,000-12,800 ISO gives relatively, but not totally, noise-free pictures. But they allow you free rein in low light with high shutter speeds. I have seen acceptable results with the D3S at ISO 52,000 with a single candle for illumination.

Once you have chosen your camera, good Sniping technique dictates that you remain unobtrusive. You need to blend into the surroundings. Standing in shadow, or using natural shelter and observing carefully, will allow you to get the type of shots you’re after.

You need to be very aware of the light, because you have no control over the position of your subject in relation to it. It is not unusual to find back, side and harsh front lighting, all within your one area of operation. In order to get great shots, this variability necessitates quick shooting and extreme concentration. It entails rapid changes to metering mode, from spot to matrix to centre weighted, radical changes in ISO and liberal use of exposure compensation. The pace can get pretty frenetic when the light’s changing and people are moving quickly, but the rewards and self satisfaction are enormous. You get pictures of people the way they really are, no posturing for the camera, no masks.

It’s a tough technique to master, but Sniping offers great rewards.

 

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